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East Timor requests cane toad help

Australian Associated Press - September 12, 2008

Dili – Australia must help East Timor deal with an exploding cane toad population, President Jose Ramos Horta says.

Australian troops have been accused of introducing the cane toad into East Timor when they arrived in 1999 to stop the violence triggered by a vote for independence from Indonesia.

Known in East Timor as the "INTERFET frog", the toads are believed to have hitched a ride on military vehicles used as part of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET).

"It is a problem that we don't need," Dr Romas Horta said today. "We didn't have it (before)."

Earlier this year Dr Ramos Horta referred to cane toads as "beautiful" and "harmless" during a mock parliamentary debate about eradication legislation at a Darwin school. But he does not feel the same when faced with the issue in real life.

"It can be devastating – even in Australia," Dr Ramos Horta said. "Australia has not been able to effectively combat it, so can you imagine for East Timor?"

Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said earlier this week he would investigate the matter further. "The Australian Defence Force does have very strict quarantine controls," he said.

Dr Ramos Horta said he previously asked the Northern Territory government to help East Timor deal with the problem. "But the most effective way, they said, is through community involvement – no chemicals," he said.

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown has called for the Australian Government to launch a massive cane toad eradication plan for the tiny nation.

Senator Brown called the toad problem an "international biological emergency" that could cost billions of dollars in economic losses for both East Timor and Indonesia.

The Australian Defence Force said it would be very difficult to ascertain the source of any introduced species into East Timor, and that Australian facilities in East Timor are subject to stringent environmental health checks.

Since the cane toad's arrival in Australia in the 1930s, they have spread from Queensland, where they were originally introduced to kill pests in the cane fields, to northern NSW and across into the Northern Territory.

The invading frontline is currently less than 50km from WA, having already ravaged the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, killing everything and anything that eats them, from crocodiles to quolls.